Julia Roberts as Mother Nature: 'I Don’t Really Need People'

Clouds rise through Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorilla
Courtesy Conservation International

Should the human race suffer a massive die-off or even extinction, Mother Nature, to hear Julia Roberts tell it, won’t much care.

“I’ve been here for eons,” she says, giving voice to the natural world in a 2-minute video released today. “I’ve fed species greater than you. And I’ve starved greater species than you. My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests: They all can take you—or leave you… Your actions will determine your fate. Not mine.”

Mother Nature and The Soil poster
Courtesy Conservation International

Roberts brief monologue—she’s heard, never seen, as viewers are zoomed over dramatic landscapes and eventually into space—kicks off a series of 10 such short films called “Nature Is Speaking.” They’re being posted on the Web, screened this week (as leads-in to four keynote speeches) at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Tex., and are clearly intended for online sharing.

Along with Roberts, an A-list of movie stars donated their time and intonations to the project, which was produced by Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International and co-created with Lee Clow, the ad legend responsible for Apple’s Think Different campaign (“Here’s to the crazy ones.”). In the segments, we hear from various natural elements and sentient beings questioning why humans pay so little attention to the hazards posed by overpopulation, an overheated climate, and other ecological pressures. Harrison Ford holds forth as a deeply exasperated ocean. Kevin Spacey is an unbearably smug rainforest. Ed Norton is soil—with anger issues. Penelope Cruz speaks for fresh water; there is nothing you wouldn’t do for “Agua” when she’s through. Hewlett-Packard likes the campaign so much it has committed to donating $1 to CI for every unique use of the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking, up to $1 million.

Lee Clow
Courtesy Conservation International

“For us, it was a natural extension of our partnership, where we are using technology to track species with sensors in tropical forests, to set up an alarm system for ones that are at risk of becoming endangered,” says HP’s Gabi Zedlmayer. She is the computer giant’s chief progress officer and says that the funds for CI are motivated by more than feel-good PR. “Being a leader on sustainability issues opens doors for us, especially for our institutional business, with government ministries overseas,” Zedlmayer says. HP will also use some of its own data-processing capabilities to confirm the uniqueness of each #NatureIsSpeaking.

Longer than the typical 30- or 60-second broadcast commercial and with very limited branding (a title before and after), the “Nature Is Speaking” videos aren’t quite advertisements, but neither are they exactly public service announcements. No specific action is suggested, no instruction given. They add up to more of an existential wake-up call, like the one delivered to earthlings in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

“Our goals for this are varied,” says M. Sanjayan, the nonprofit’s executive vice president and senior scientist. “CI is an organization that is well known amongst a small amount of people and government, but it’s not more broadly known. So one measure of success is to increase our online presence, increase online giving, engagement, et cetera.” More important, he says, “is for companies—consumer facing organizations—to take notice and link to this and use it as a platform to tell their own story. Just for an example, say, Starbucks might say it’s listening to soil, and here are the ways it’s improving conditions where coffee is grown.” Although some environmentalists may disagree, Sanjayan says that, by and large, “companies are far ahead of consumers in recognizing why they need nature to sustain their businesses. Coke doesn’t need to be told that they need clean water to make their product. Executives understand nature as capital.” He and CI want to get businesses to use their marketing muscle to speak out on this more.

Peter Seligmann
Courtesy Conservation International

The striking approach of the series—nature taking little pity on people—grew out of an encounter between CI’s founder, Peter Seligmann, and Clow, a meeting arranged by Steve Jobs’s widow and CI board member Laurene Powell Jobs. “Laurene’s been involved in Conservation International for years. She asked if we would help. We said sure. Simple as that,” says Clow, who is chairman and global director of TBWAWorldwide in Los Angeles. He’s famous, among other things, for co-creating the “1984″ commercial that launched the Apple Macintosh. For years, Seligmann has argued that environmentalists have fumbled their messaging, handicapping the movement toward sustainability by making it all about preserving something separate, remote, pristine and far away—a place for some rich hippie and her tent—instead of helping people.

“Peter described everything they care about and everything they do,” Clow, a lifelong surfer, says of their meeting. “And I found this really simple little thought in there which kind of flipped the conversation on its head. It was the notion that nature doesn’t need people. Nature has evolved for billions of years mostly without people. Without humans. But conversely, we desperately need to partner with nature if we want to stay on this planet a little bit longer.”

Iguacu Falls
Courtesy Conservation International

They hadn’t started out thinking they’d use celebrities, but Harrison Ford is CI’s vice chairman, and he made a convincing ocean. Another actor known to be vocal on the environment—Robert Redford—signed on early. He’s a redwood who explains human folly to a younger tree voiced by his granddaughter. Still in the works: Ian Somerhalder speaking up for coral reefs.

Clow’s as eager as any to see how the series does, but he’s certain CI’s inclusive worldview is vital. “They’re trying to get away from it being ‘us vs. them,’ of being confrontational and combative,” Clow says, giving a little laugh. “This is kind of a selfish strategy that we created. This is not about saving nature. This is about saving ourselves.”

( Corrects the spelling of Gabi Zedlmayer's name in the fifth paragraph and "agua" in the fourth paragraph. )
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